The entire course of a gymnastics meet can change dramatically in about the time it takes to read this sentence.
At the NCAA Men’s Gymnastic Championships at St. John Arena on Saturday night, the Buckeyes were determined to upset defending champion Oklahoma and win their first team title since 2001. It was a long shot, but they had just won the Big 10 championship the week before, with sophomore Sean Melton winning the all-around title in a dazzling performance.
The Buckeyes were on a roll and anything was possible.
After a solid team performance on the rings in their opening rotation on Saturday, the Buckeyes moved over to the vault. Seth Delbridge performed a near-perfect vault and received a score of 15.350, which temporarily put him in the lead.
Then Melton stepped up to the mat, raced toward the vault, did a very complicated and high-degree-of-difficulty vault that involved three forward flips and … he landed awkwardly and crumbled to the floor, clutching his left knee. Trainers and coaches raced to his side and eventually escorted the limping Melton to the training room.
A hush fell over the OSU fans, while fans from other schools, most unaware of what had just happened to Melton, cheered on their teams as the five other gymnastics disciplines continued.
“In our sport, anything can happen in seconds,” said OSU coach Rustam Sharipov.
And then what?
“You make adjustments and keep fighting,” he said.
That’s exactly what the Buckeyes did, led by freshman Alec Yoder, senior Alex Johnson and Delbridge, a sophomore.
Johnson tied for first in the high bar with Stanford’s Akash Modi. They both scored 15.200. After winning an NCAA championship in his final meet as a Buckeye, all Johnson wanted to talk about was his team.
“When I stuck (the landing on the high bar), I was just so happy to bring a good score to the team when we really needed it,” he said. “All I was focused on was the team, helping my team.”
As a team, the Buckeyes clawed back from Melton’s problems on the vault and finished a solid third (433.050 points), behind Oklahoma (443.400) and Stanford (434.050).
Yoder finished fifth in the all-around competition, second in the pommel horse and seventh in the rings; Delbridge was second in the vault; Emeric Quade was fifth in the floor exercise and Alex Wilson tied for seventh in the vault.
What about Melton?
In his first event of the evening, he turned in a good performance on the rings, and eventually finished fifth. Then came the vault.
“I caught my heel and landed straight-legged and hyperextended my knee,” said Melton, who was a contender for the all-around title. He is a member of the U.S. National Team, the pool of world-class gymnasts from which the 2016 Olympic team will be selected. At the 2016 Winter Cup, he won the parallel bars, was second in the rings and third in the all-around.
When he hurt his knee, Melton wasn’t thinking about the upcoming Osijek World Cup Challenge in Croatia or the all-important Olympic Trials in June.
“In that moment, all I was thinking about was, could I finish the meet for my teammates,” Melton said. “I asked the trainers if I could do any more damage to it and they said no, and I decided to get back and fight with my teammates.”
Still shaken from his injury and a little wobbly, Melton fell off the parallel bars, an event in which he was a top contender. He finished near the bottom.
“After that I didn’t want my teammates to think I was giving up,” Melton said. “I was so determined to do something on the high bar.”
He finished fourth in the high bar, as he and Delbridge helped the Buckeyes move up in the team standings. Because of his knee injury, Sharipov scratched Melton elected from the floor exercise, an event that puts a lot of strain on an athlete’s knees. This meant he was out of the all-around competition. Despite his misadventures on the vault and parallel bars, Melton was seventh in the all-around competition after four of the six events.
“There’s no doubt he’s in the top three,” Sharipov said of where he thought Melton would have finished in the all-around without his fall and injury on the vault.
Yul Moldauer of Oklahoma won the all-around with a score of 89.100, followed by Akash Modi of Standford (88.500). At the Big Ten championships, Melton scored an 89.750 to win the all-around title. Melton, Moldauer and Modi are all members of the Men’s National Team, the only three collegiate athletes on the team.
Sharipov is optimistic that the return of Melton, Yoder, Delbridge, Quade, Wilson and several other talented gymnasts will mean more individual NCAA medals, and maybe, just maybe, a team title is within the grasp of the Buckeyes.
“I am so proud of my guys,” the coach said. “We had some unexpected things happen and so many guys stepped up. They never stopped fighting and that’s what I’m proudest about. Moving on, this shows we’re on the right path and doing all the right things.”